Opinion //

Privileged, monocultural automatons

Baopu He unpacks the selective schools debate

Unsettling, alarming and downright conspiratorial: you’d be excused for thinking that these headlines come from a desperate, post-apocalyptic future. Such is the state of the current media discourse. These headlines are all drawn from Australian newspapers from the past few years. The faceless threat they speak of? Selective schools. Hidden beneath the layers of sensationalist outrage is a very real anxiety in Australia regarding selective school education.

Who exactly is feeling this fear? One quick look through the Sydney Morning Herald’s archives shows that everyone from university academics, to private school mums, to executive directors of Catholic education have published criticisms of selective schools. Even the principal of The King’s School, a private all-boys school that charges well over $30,000 per annum, stated that free selective school education should be restricted to families of a certain socio-economic background in a 2012 Sydney Morning Herald interview.

Curiously lacking in this debate are the voices of current and recently graduated selective school students. In a debate so focused on the apparent lack of ‘diversity’ in selective schools, it is both surprising and unsettling that the range of views expressed overwhelmingly reflect the same white, upper middle class ethos. When we look at what diversity in Australia has become today, this white-centric debate shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody.

An alumni of North Sydney Girls, UTS Academic Dr Christina Ho, criticised the ethnic makeup of selective schools for not reflecting the diversity of Australia’s society in a 2016 article in The Conversation. In it she argues that as a consequence of their lack of diversity, selective schools are no longer spaces where students can learn about cross-cultural communication by simply interacting with those of a different background on a daily basis.

However, nothing could be further from my own experience in the selective school system, growing up amidst a kaleidoscope of cultures and ethnic backgrounds including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Sri-Lankan, and Anglo-Saxon. Whilst the majority of us do identify under the monolithic label of ‘Asian’ for the sake of unity, this does not erase our individual cultural heritage any more than calling ourselves ‘Australian’ makes us a homogenous unit.

Why is it that to many people, a school whose makeup is 80% white and 20% PoC is considered diverse, but a school whose demographics are flipped is seen as dominated by ‘ethnics’? It seems the issue with selective schools is not that they lack diversity, but rather that they lack the specific brand of diversity that disgruntled, privileged white parents are seeking. Their diversity, Dr Ho notes, is dichotomous in that it consists of only ‘white’ and ‘not-white’, and simultaneously built on the power imbalance that exists between the two.

This diversity gives a facade of harmony by appearing to tackle racial issues on the surface, but ultimately leaves the root causes of racism untouched. It allows the predominant cultural group to experience all the benefits of multiculturalism (highly desirable in our globalised world) without having to deal with the unglamorous prejudice that unfortunately exists alongside it.

There is rarely such sanitised or artificial diversity at selective schools, where white Australians are just another strand in the tapestry of multiculturalism, as opposed to the weaver who intertwines the strands into a pattern of their own liking. Even so, in my discussions with people who went to other selective schools, a common criticism was that there existed a covert but institutionalised prejudice against non-white students when it came to electing people for leadership positions; a sobering reminder for Asian students of the inequalities they will face once they leave the safe confines of high school.

The current debate lies in how white Australians no longer exclusively benefit from selective schools, precisely because they have helped migrant children overcome the many barriers society has erected. To further erase the difficulties faced by Asian Australians (which could result in unwanted public sympathy), the media has recently shifted the focus of the debate from race to class and wealth. Turning migrant children into public enemy number one has since become remarkably easy. All of a sudden, issues like the bamboo ceiling are brushed over in favour of the image that selective schools are “bastions of inequality”, and those who attend them aggressive underminers of the public schools system.

The fundamental purpose of selective schools is to provide intelligent students with a quality learning environment that does not hold them back, where they can learn regardless of socio-economic or racial background. Statistics on the MySchool’s website appear to dispute this. For example, James Ruse recorded an Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) value of 1262, a number that vastly outstrips even the most expensive private schools like Ascham (1154). When synthesised with the advent of tutoring, it is tempting to conclude that students at selective schools are only there because their parents could afford to send them to tutoring.

While selective school students generally do come from more privileged backgrounds than normal comprehensive schools, the nature of this advantage has been deeply misconstrued by the media. The ICSEA is a measure of socio-educational advantage, as opposed to socio-economic advantage, and is calculated through taking into account factors like school location, number of Indigenous students, and most importantly, parental levels of education. Though economic and educational advantage often overlap, the correlation between them becomes complicated in migrant families. The high levels of education that seem to be universal amongst Asian migrants frequently does not translate into an economic advantage due to a myriad of reasons, such as language barriers, workplace discrimination, or their qualifications simply not being recognised in Australia.

Whilst I am lucky to come from an economically stable family, it would be disingenuous to say my background is reflective of selective school students as a whole. The majority of my school friends are on Centrelink benefits, and amongst their parents, for every highly educated doctor, accountant and engineer, there is a highly educated factory worker, taxi driver and cleaner. In Asian families belonging to the latter category, it is not uncommon to see parents work extra jobs, cut spendings elsewhere or even borrow money to send their kids to tutoring in the hopes of landing a place at a selective school and prestigious university course. For Sophie*, a low SES medical student who attended a top selective school, the true extent of her parent’s sacrifice is something she may never know.

“At the time, they didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to worry or feel guilty about how much they were spending.”

Seemingly excessive, the initial investment into tutoring for the Selective School’s Test (SST) still makes fiscal sense. After all, what is $4000 for a single year of tutoring, compared to $150,000 for 6 years of private education, or $2,000,000 to buy a house in the catchment area of a good local school such as Killara? Furthermore, tutoring in itself does not guarantee a selective school place, something confirmed by my own experience working as a teacher at a major coaching school. 

The SST comprises of four components: English comprehension, Mathematics, General Ability and Creative Writing. None of these components can be successfully rote learnt as the exams are not built around a curriculum, but rather are designed to test aptitude and intuition – both of which cannot be taught. While tutoring can familiarise children with the pressures of working under a time limit, success is ultimately dependant on their ability, and most of my students left a year’s worth of tutoring without any significant improvement. Of course, all this is not to say that those who do not make selective schools are incapable, but rather that those who did make it deserved to do so, whether they went tutoring or not.

Herein lies the contradiction often used as the foundation of this debate. On the one hand, selective schools ‘ruin’ local comprehensive schools by ‘taking away’ all the brightest students (an issue that is definitely worthy of discussion but in another article given its complex nature). On the other hand these students are not really that intelligent due to a heavy reliance on external help. This thinking, grounded in racism and the stereotype of Asian students being “grade chasing automatons”, still underscores much of the discussion on selective schools, leading to a situation where their students are disparaged if they do well, and denigrated if they do not.

For the past few years, the Australian media has carefully cultivated an alienating image of selective schools as being incompatible with the values of our contemporary society. This image, perpetuated under the guise of “promoting diversity” and “fighting inequality”, completely overlooks the complexity of the issue and often scapegoats Asian Australian students as the cause of the problems seen in the educational system as a whole. Given how selective schools have disrupted society’s white-centric status quo, the ease with which this image has been perpetuated is unsurprising. The scarcity of Asian perspectives is also unsurprising for the same reason: the debate was never really about us to begin with.